Jeremy Clarke

The art of breaststroke

Learning to do it correctly was one of the most profitable things I ever did in my ridiculous life

The art of breaststroke
[Photo: BraunS]
Text settings

I’m house-sitting for the foreign correspondent while he attends the funeral of his beloved father-in-law Toto, the last of the languid Old Etonian gentleman bankers. And he has a pool. And what a pool it is.

The days here are roasting; the sun is now the enemy. Already dead leaves crackle underfoot. So I swim in the evening, when it is a little cooler. The pool is built into the hill above the house. On one side is a wide apron of smooth white stone slabs. Beyond the apron is a rose garden and stone-built pool house with power sockets and a beer fridge. On the other side the water falls over a brim with an ‘infinity’ effect.

I swim wearing sunglasses and a linen bowling cap and I begin with a breaststroke slow enough not to disturb the surface of the water. Submerged to just below my nostrils I can see the tiled roof showing through the olive trees and a long hump-backed mountain beyond. Contrails hang in the sky. Not a breath of wind. Silence. Once in a while a Pentecostal gale starts up out of nowhere, buffeting the olive trees, changing their colour from green to silver. Then it dies away again as suddenly as it came and the evening silence resumes. I imagine that it is a relieved silence after the day’s fierce heat.

Swimming is my great pleasure. One tip for better swimming offered in a book written by an instructor, which I have always remembered, and which becomes truer as I get older, and which I offer here, is to love the water. Instead of battling against it, embrace it like a lover. Hug it to you. Caress it. Wallow in it. Make your strokes sensual.

One day, near Fez, Morocco, towards the end of a long lorry ride across Africa in 1989, I watched our driver, a huge Perth surfing champion, perfectly demonstrate this counsel while swimming in a campsite swimming pool. Now that man could swim. Even then, as a non-swimmer, I could see what a beautiful swimmer he was. Before that day I’d seen his economical yet powerful front crawl carve the surfaces of the Upper Niger and the great lakes and rivers of Central Africa. But in that cool, clean, tiled swimming pool, after four-and-a-half dusty months at the wheel of our Bedford lorry, I saw his slow, slow breaststroke make barely a ripple, and his wide back rise and fall more slowly and gracefully than I could have imagined possible.

Normally a bit of a brash show-off, here he kept his head out of the water like a beginner and took huge loving armfuls of water to himself with gratitude and humility. Honestly – I saw it and understood. I would go as far as to say that John Leivers’s impossibly slow, loving, head-up breaststroke in Morocco that afternoon was one of the most surprising and memorable things I saw between Nairobi and London. Of course we were all a bit deranged by then, but still. And right there I decided that I wanted to be able one fine day to swim breaststroke as slowly and as gracefully as that violently anti-English Australian who could put a crowd of village yobs to flight with one of his famous gunshot-loud belches.

When I got back, I booked early morning swimming lessons three times a week at the Clennon Valley public swimming baths in Paignton. It was the first thing I did. And being correctly taught that kick, glide, pull, and underwater exhale by an elderly instructor who loved swimming too was one of the most profitable things I ever did in my ridiculous life. Eventually I learned the other strokes and have spent the rest of my life improving them. But my momentary vision of John Leivers’s slow, head-up, loving, thankful breaststroke remains, for me, the epitome of mastery.

So after a year of inactivity and strong medicine, I lower my wasted, clapped-out body into the foreign correspondent’s swimming pool and I swim that slow, deliberate, John Leivers head-up breaststroke up and down for three quarters of an hour or an hour. I never imagined that the day would come when it would suit my immediate requirements so well.

On the first day, it was the only stroke I made. And oh, what bliss! I’d almost forgotten the meditative state one falls into after 20 minutes or half an hour of continuous swimming. With never a splash and barely a ripple to disturb the silence, I cruised slowly up and down. A three-quarters moon rose over the pines. Unafraid of the Lock & Co. bowling cap moving slowly across the surface, a jay, then a pair of pied wagtails came to the brim and drank.